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The Persisting Spectre of Cultural Decline

Historiographical Approaches to Muslim Scholarship in the Early Modern Maghreb

In: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
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This article examines how historiography has interpreted the development of Muslim scholarship in early modern North Africa. It focuses on the continuing influence of what I call the “decline narrative” on both national historiographies and Western specialist studies. Elaborated in the context of French colonialism and consecrated by nationalist-cum-reformist discourses, the denunciation of the centuries preceding colonial conquest as an epoch of decadence has hardly been challenged. Beginning with the French historian and sociologist Jacques Berque (1910-95), however, there was a vivid interest amongst social scientists in early modern Islamic culture. The main part of the paper will be dedicated to a methodological analysis of some of these works, and, in the concluding section, I will discuss the degree to which the study of the diffusion of Islamic literacy in rural areas may serve as a starting point for a renewed approach to Islamic literature and its social foundations.

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